My cell phone chimed. Another news alert; another terrorist attack.
I scanned news articles and social media feeds; headlines mingled with prayers. As the workday unfolded, I followed the accounts of witnesses, journalists, and world leaders.
Heartbreak, hatred, and hashtags danced in what has become a tragically familiar waltz: a violent act shatters lives; the media scramble to capture every detail. Officials rush to respond with security protocols and hasty legislation. Thousands share their reactions online; protests and memorials are organized; flowers and candles mark another spot scarred by evil.
And then the dance ends, only to repeat itself a few weeks or months later, step for step.
All too often, we return to our routines, unchanged — or perhaps confirmed in our apathy or bitterness. And the warped, wounded souls whose only language is brutality remain unreached, ready to strike again.
Of course, amidst tragedy we still need to restore order and to somehow “get back to normal.” But we also need to ask ourselves how we define “normal.”
For one community in Jesus’ time, “normal” meant living with a demon–possessed man in the town cemetery (Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39; Matthew 8:28-34). While the villagers went about their daily tasks, the man wandered continually “among the tombs and on the hillsides … always crying out and bruising himself with stones” (Mark 5:5).
The residents had tried to contain this threat. The demoniac “had frequently been bound with shackles and chains, but the chains had been pulled apart by him and the shackles smashed, and no one was strong enough to subdue him” (Mark 5:4).
Eventually, the locals resigned themselves to living with the eerie rants and the flailing limbs. Now and then, a few folks ventured into the tombs with new fetters to “fix the problem,” at least for a little while.
But it wasn’t until Jesus arrived on the shores of this Gentile town that the screams were silenced for good. Seeing the wretched man, the Lord quickly expelled the legion of demons, who begged to take refuge in a nearby herd of swine. Jesus consented, and the frenzied pigs “rushed down a steep bank into the sea, where they were drowned” (Mark 5:13).
The swineherds fled to report what had happened — and this is where the story takes a strange turn.
The crowds gathered, staring at the floating mass of about 2,000 swine. The loss of so many livestock, even these ritually unclean animals, was devastating. Stunned, the villagers “approached Jesus … (and) caught sight of the man who had been possessed … sitting there clothed and in his right mind” (Mark 5:15).
The howling madman — who had haunted them day and night — was finally calm. No shrieks, no snarls, no spams of insanity.
Their reaction? “They were seized with fear” (Mark 5:15).
And then, “they began to beg (Jesus) to leave their district” (Mark 5:17).
Jesus had miraculously wrought peace, and they couldn’t run him out of town fast enough. Why?
“They had not been afraid of the raging of the madman; they had become accustomed to his ravings as an aspect of their given, normal world,” writes biblical scholar M. Eugene Boring. “Now they realize they are in the presence of someone for whom such a world is not the unchangeable, unnoticed givenness of everyday life, and this is scary indeed.”
Terrifying as he was, the townsfolk had gotten used to their demoniac. Sure, they’d wrung their hands, shook their heads, and made an occasional effort to control him. And before Jesus arrived, there was only so much they could do. But their refusal to honor the Lord for his deliverance indicts them. They didn’t want the radical change that healing the demoniac demanded.
Two thousand years later, we’re no different when it comes to our own demoniacs. After this summer’s Orlando nightclub massacre, Father Jim McDermott, S.J., challenged our pious passivity. “This may sound bizarre coming from a priest,” he admitted, “(but) when it comes to gun violence I’ve had it with ‘I’m praying for you.’ It’s a beautiful and well-intentioned sentiment; it also allows us to wash our hands of these events.”
We can’t allow terrorism, gun violence, human trafficking, or any form of evil to become our “everyday” demoniacs — the ones we generally tolerate, sometimes tether, and never really tackle. “Ask yourself … what have I done to help change the situation?” Father McDermott writes. “How have I used my gifts, my time, my network of friends to actually try and make a difference?”
Jesus confronted and conquered evil, and he commissions us to do the same in his strength. If we obey, our demoniacs will become witnesses to his power. Having freed the demon-possessed man, Jesus sent him back to the frightened townsfolk as a messenger of grace:
“Then the man went off and began to proclaim in the Decapolis what Jesus had done for him; and all were amazed” (Mark 5:20).
Gina Christian is a writer in Philadelphia and a member of St. William Parish.